Taking Bret Easton Ellis Seriously

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    This Is Not An Exit directed by Gerald Fox

    Bret Easton Ellis has proved his detractors wrong in at least one respect: he's survived into the next millennium. This month we're in the midst of a bona fide Ellis convergence. Director Mary Harron's long-delayed big-screen adaptation of American Psycho, a surprise (if modest) success at this year's Sundance film festival, opens Friday, and a documentary about the novelist, Gerald Fox's This Is Not an Exit, is now showing at Cinema Village. If you watch them both?and unless you're really, really interested in Ellis, I can't imagine any reason why you'd want to?you'll probably emerge convinced that Ellis, detractors be damned, was actually onto something, and rather than merely riding a series of media fads, his fiction seriously tried to satirize and fix certain subcultures of the 80s, even if the results weren't always 100 percent successful. (Another equally interesting phenomenon occurs: you get to see key scenes from American Psycho replayed twice with different actors, in different filmmaking styles and at different budget levels.) American Psycho is a Grand Guignol satire. Handsome, sociopathic young Wall Street trader Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is the prototypical man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The story touches on a number of Ellisonian themes (to be grandiose about it): the thoroughly corrupting influences of money and power on the young and the old; America's all-consuming fascination with brand names and consumer goods, which displaces real thought and real feeling as cancer cells displace healthy ones; and the American male's violently conflicted impulses toward sex and sexual identity, which are expressed in an attitude toward women that mixes childish acquisitiveness and intense contempt. The narrative arc is pretty straightforward. Bateman, who's employed by a top brokerage house and is engaged to be married to the young and connected Evelyn Williams (Reese Witherspoon in a charmingly haughty cameo), lives a secret life as a meticulous serial killer of women (and a few male rivals who get in his way for one reason or another). In the film, as in the novel, Bateman narrates, and though he's an unstable guy, you can't exactly call his narration unreliable. He paints a picture of a society so empty and corrupt that it hardly seems worth saving from the likes of him.

    A lot of people have tried to bring American Psycho to the movies?including Oliver Stone, who tried to produce a version for director Rob Weiss, the pea-brain behind the awful gangster picture Amongst Friends. But for various reasons, it never worked out until now. I have to think part of the delay had to do with the studios' inability to get an answer to one key question: does anybody really want to see a big-screen version of American Psycho? The book was panned for being awful (it's not) and for being too long, too ham-handed and generally excessive (all of which it is). The violence was an even bigger turnoff. Bateman's butchery of women was as offhand-methodical as a little boy's dismemberment of spiders, and conveyed in sickening detail; the vivisections and mutilations were bad enough, but somehow Bateman's unemotional recounting of them made the whole thing even worse. A film of such material would not, to put it mildly, make for a great date movie. And between the MPAA and feminist groups, it might be too much trouble.

    Harron, the director of the disturbing but enthralling I Shot Andy Warhol, and screenwriter Guinevere Turner (who cowrote Go Fish and has a small role in Psycho as a doomed prostitute) were undeterred; they were attracted to the novel for its satirization of contemporary American manhood and found the savagery interesting rather than offputting. Together they found a way to film American Psycho in a way that honors the source (if you're inclined to do that sort of thing) while straddling the line between satire and exploitation. The result isn't entirely successful, but it does convince you that (1) it was worth doing, if only for curiosity's sake, and that (2) Bret Easton Ellis was legitimately trying to say something about America and its men, and might actually be the social chronicler he always claimed to be rather than the untalented, nightclub-crawling prose-brat portrayed by his enemies.

    The movie doesn't so much validate as explicate Ellis; the flaws of the film are the flaws of the book, but the film articulates the book's messages (such as they are) in a more compact, graceful and enjoyable way. It's sick and funny and disturbing, but the overall tone is fairly spry and detached, closer to a novel by Evelyn Waugh (The Loved One) or to Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove than to Ellis' overdone, blood-steak of a novel. When the film moves out of social manners mode, trading a spoof of yuppie "values" in the 80s for a pseudo-Hitchcockian string of quasi-humorous murders, it goes off the rails just as the book did, but rather than plunging 1000 feet into an abyss of bad taste, as Ellis' book did, Harron's movie merely tips over and lets you see the wheels spin while the passengers climb out unscathed. The filmmakers also manage to suggest that perhaps not all of Bateman's outrages are real; they could be the fantasies of a disturbed man who has translated his own sexual identity crisis into a series of horrific woman-hating fantasies.

    Harron and Turner signal the film's satirical intent with a number of superb touches. The elegant widescreen compositions (photographed by Andrzej Secula) suggest some of the spare futuristic interiors in A Clockwork Orange and 2001; the addition of human beings to some of the spaces often seems an outrage, a reason to phone the exterminator. The mores and pop culture interests of the time and place are replicated exactly, and they seem almost quaint because they're further in the past than they were when Ellis first committed them to paper. Bateman's exegesis of the "meanings" of Huey Lewis' "Hip to Be Square" is preserved, and delivered with a contempt that neutralizes its irrelevance; so is the sequence where Bateman and his young male coworkers compare business cards with the solemn intensity of little boys whipping their dicks out and laying them on a table for measurement. (Whenever a man opens his little metal card carrier to remove a card, it makes an exaggerated "snick" sound, like a switchblade.)

    The deftest, most alarming sequence in the novel, replicated with marvelous fidelity in the film, shows Bateman going through his personal hygiene and grooming routine. He walks us through his shaving and showering process and elucidates every cosmetic and chemical he uses on his tanned white skin with fanatical detail?brand names, chemicals, advertising pitches; nothing is spared. Bale reads in a relaxed yet focused monotone that suggests a rabid baseball card fan flipping through his collection and reading you every single statistic whether you want to hear it or not. It's a great scene because it brings so many of Ellis' own obsessions into convergence: blind consumerism laced with competitiveness (my products are rarer and more expensive and thus better than those my rivals use, which means that I am better than my rivals), and an intriguingly feminine obsession with the micro-details of appearance.

    When Ellis wrote the scene more than 10 years ago, he was onto something: the dandyfication of the young American man by consumer culture, which was desperate to expand its market reach, and succeeded. Bateman talks about women with matter-of-fact species-based superiority, as if females were horses to be broken or dogs to be whipped with sticks. But when he moves into the bathroom and stares into the mirror, he's more of a stereotypical girl than any of them. Also?and this might be more significant?the scene literalizes Bateman's obsession with surfaces. This is a man who, by his own admission, wears a mask of normalcy; the illusion is truly skin-deep, but at least the skin is well-tended with exfoliants, mango scrubs and the like.

    This notion is corroborated and expanded by Fox's This Is Not an Exit, a documentary about Ellis' life and work that manages to do more or less the same thing as American Psycho: it convinces you that Ellis is worth thinking about and taking seriously, even though he's not a great American writer. Insightful and lucid, it takes you beneath Ellis' public mask without removing it. Fox wandered with Ellis through Los Angeles and New York, revisiting old haunts and discussing people, places and situations that inspired his four novels.

    Ellis emerges as a very Ellisonian character (big surprise, right?). He seems slightly remote and dandyish?a man playing a role who's aware that he's playing a role and alternately enjoys and loathes studying himself. When he goes clothes shopping at a designer store and says he can't find anything he likes and is uninterested in such duds, you probably won't believe him. (He professes to dress casually because he finds the whole clotheshorse mentality silly; given the clotheshorse mentality of much of his fiction, this seems a calculated variety of reverse snobbery.)

    Ellis admits that, like most authors, all his fiction is to some degree autobiographical. The biggest recurring theme, as it turns out, isn't materialism and alienation (though Ellis suggests he's had plenty of experience with both). It's poor relations between a boy and his father. The author's dad comes across as a character from The Graduate?a rich Southern California materialist who's too involved in his work and his own ambition to forge a real connection with his family, and who substitutes transparent gestures (like driving with his son in a top-down convertible while blasting 60s rock) for real communication. Several key scenes in Ellis' work involving detached, shallow and/or absent fathers come directly from his own life?if not actual events, then strong feelings he wanted to express and perhaps conquer. The writer is touchingly frank in talking about this, and other sources interviewed by Fox?a high school writing teacher, assorted friends?corroborate Ellis' apparent distress as much more than a pose.

    This Is Not an Exit is much better than the recent documentary, James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, but not as good as Let It Come Down, about the late Paul Bowles. Which isn't to say it convinces you that Ellis is the equal of either of them; merely that it convinces you there's enough interesting stuff in Ellis' work to merit a feature-length documentary. We are told that when future generations want to learn exactly what life was like for a certain class of young, deadened rich people in the 80s, they'll turn to Ellis. After seeing these two movies, I'm convinced that's true?though I suspect the work will have to be heavily footnoted because of the writer's excessive, almost festishistic interest in brand names, from perfumes and records to celebrities.

    Various experts who are familiar either with Ellis or his work analyze it in considerable detail, and it's funny how often they agree on the writer's virtues (a reporter's eye and ear, a wicked sense of humor) and his flaws (a certain shallowness and sameness in the characterizations, a tendency toward needless repetition and overkill). One area where Fox doesn't go deep enough: a couple of interviewees suggest that the intense misogyny in American Psycho?hints of which occur in previous Ellis books?are the writer's way of working through his own conflicted sexual identity. What would that be, exactly? It's important to spell it out if the purpose of a documentary is to understand the connection between an author's life and his work. The question hangs there unanswered.

    Fox's re-creation of scenes from Ellis' fiction is varied and consistently watchable, though not always well-acted. (Satire is damn hard to do.) Unlike Chuck Workman's recent documentary on the Beats, Fox doesn't simply pick a few celebrities and have them perform the prose into the camera; he mixes it up, alternating direct monologues, impressionistic montages with voiceover and straightforward acting-workshop dialogue sequences. The most fascinating of these, for me, are the scenes from American Psycho. In Harron's film, Bateman, expertly played by Bale, is a vivid and terrifying character, confident in his evil and secure in the knowledge of his own spiritual emptiness. In Fox's documentary, the role of Bateman is played by Uma Thurman's brother Dechen. With his small mouth, pale skin and high forehead he's even more genetically accurate a specimen of the WASP ideal than Bale, but the performance is more delicate and fey?almost overtly gay.

    Which is another way of saying that in Harron's film, the young men are straight men who infrequently playact stereotypical gayness, but in Fox's film, they seem more like closeted gay men desperately playacting straightness. This is a subtle but intriguing difference, and in a way, it validates what Ellis has been claiming all along: that his work contains real ideas, and that his fiction is open to interpretation.

    Framed Doubtfire: Is there a more depressing bit of movie news than the announcement that the first Harry Potter movie will be directed by Chris Columbus? Sure, the guy's movies tend to make money, but of all the directors mentioned as possible candidates to helm the project, he's far and away the least talented?a hack who thinks humor is a kick in the nuts, nails his camera to the floor and thinks good compositions should resemble subpar greeting cards. Steven Spielberg, who bowed out, would have been a fine choice, and Columbus competitors all would have contributed indispensable touches. (I would have chosen either Terry Gilliam or Alan Parker, both of whom are wonderful visual stylists who work well with special effects, wrest superb performances from children and aren't afraid of darkness. An even better choice would have been Peter Jackson [Heavenly Creatures], who's busy doing the Lord of The Rings trilogy and probably won't want to do another fantasy project after he's finished. The best of all would have been Neil Jordan (The Butcher Boy, The Crying Game), but his name was never mentioned as a contender. Ah, idiocy. Deep throat: On Tuesday, April 18, 9 p.m., the Siberia Bar (50th & B'way, inside the 1/9 subway station) will screen the rarely seen 1975 comedy Linda Lovelace for President, in which the porn star attempts to become commander-in-chief. Micky Dolenz and Scatman Crothers costar. As the advertising tag line promises, "A vote for Linda Lovelace is a blow for democracy."